For Larry Drew II, it was a moment that couldn’t be faked.
Moments after the UCLA point guard had discovered what the team thought was something of a minor injury to all-around star Jordan Adams was actually a season-ending broken foot, the cameras were there, in the Bruins’ locker room.
With the news so fresh, and the ramifications so big, Drew couldn’t hold it in. Tears streamed down his face as he spoke to reporters, distraught.
A week has passed since that day, and a lot has happened. Adjustments had to be made, attitudes changed. It was a new team starting a new season.
And that Friday night, as Drew walked back to his hotel from the arena, he prepared himself for it mentally. There would be no more tears. There couldn’t be.
“I knew I had to move on, he said Thursday. “We couldn’t really be stuck on that forever because we were going to be playing against. So I shook it off and I got focused and probably just after that point in time I knew that, OK, the season is not over.”
And move on UCLA has heading into tonight’s matchup against the Gophers in the NCAA tournament.
About 24 hours after news of the injury, the Bruins’ had to play their next game – in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon. They lost.
“There’s not a lot of time in that sort of time period to make a lot of adjustments,” coach Ben Howland said.
A day later, the reigning regular-season Pac-12 champs were chosen as a 6 seed (perhaps a little low) in the NCAA field, scheduled to play their opening game (and second if applicable) in Austin, Texas – when the program had made it very clear they preferred the home state site of San Jose.
Too add fuel to the flames, Vegas odds quickly slotted UCLA as the three-point underdog – yes, the underdog – to 11-seed Minnesota.
It’s hard to believe that the Gophers could be the team with the least amount of drama going on in any game – but tonight that seems to be the case. Besides their seeding/location concerns, losing the role of the favorite in the matchup and the loss of Adams, the Bruins are also hampered by rampant rumors about Howland’s dubious future with the program.
While Gophers coach Tubby Smith could be in the same predicament, Howland’s seat seems infinitely hotter, and has gotten more publicity. Just to pile on, the LA Times came out with a wonderfully written story today on Shabazz Muhammad – and the discovery that the 19-year-old star is actually 20.
Can the Bruins’ regroup and shove off the distractions long enough to beat mentally ailing Minnesota – a team that has crashed and burned to a degree to finish the season, but still has the love of the national media?
That is the ultimate question.
Tonight could be the last night of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams’ career. It could be the end of the Gophers’ crazy, up-and-down season. And it very well could be the final game of Smith’s tenure at Minnesota as well.
A Gophers win would extend the season, allow Minnesota to finish on a high note and perhaps cool down Smith’s seat at least somewhat.
And I can honestly tell you, I have no idea what’s going to happen. From what I’ve seen from this team this season, nothing – nothing – would surprise me.
Three keys to tonight’s game:
- 1. Wear out UCLA and kill them on the boards. These are the Bruins’ weaknesses. They are ranked at No. 223 in the nation in rebounding percentage (the Gophers land at No. 8). And UCLA plays just seven guys, with one of them (Tony Parker) only used sparingly this season. He will get more minutes with Adams out, but can he be as productive as they need? Can Norman Powell, in replacing Adams? Howland says the team is in great shape and plans to run regardless, but if the Gophers manage to wear them out and/or get any of them in foul trouble, it could spell big problems for the Bruins.
- 2. Austin stays hot. Austin Hollins, the shooter – who went through an INCREDIBLY LONG SLUMP – has now hit five three-pointers in the last two games. Good sign. Overall, Hollins has shot 8-for-13 (61.5 percent) in his past two games. If he can get going again tonight, that will be a big help for the Maroon and Gold.
- 3. No bats. Andre Hollins is terrified of them. We learned this for certain when one of the pesky flying mammals showed up in Frank Erwin Center and decided to harass the Gophers’ point guard all over the court. If that happens during a game – yikes. Also, I am already ridiculously [ruined] by deadline, so no unnecessary game stoppages please.
Some more thoughts from UCLA:
Drew on the team coping with the loss of Adams: “I think everybody’s been handling it particularly well. Especially Norman. Norman has had a couple great days in practices these last couple of days, he’s really stepped up. The team overall has been stepping up in Jordan’s absense. Obviously it’s a major loss to us, but Coach Howland and the rest of the coaching staff, everybody’s done a very good job in preparing us for the coming games."
Drew on who would be the one guy they would try to stop: “In my opinion, the point guard is the one who controls and dictates everything out on the floor, so being that their guard, he is the leading scorer on the team, he takes the most shots, I do believe. But in my opinion, if I take him out of the game, then the rest of the team will go down with him. So I’m going to do my best to speed him up, pressure him, and just do a good job on the defensive end of the floor.”
Travis Wear on the Big Ten: “There’s a lot of big, physical teams in the Big Ten. They grind it out. I feel like a little bit more than the Pac-12 does. But I think our conference is going to fare very well in the tournament this year. I think that we’re going to prove that our conference is very tough this year and equivalent to any other one across the country. But we know that Minnesota’s going to come and grind it out and beat us on the boards like a lot of the Big Ten schools like to do.”
Howland on pushing the pace, despite the fact that UCLA is only playing seven deep: “We want to run. We want to control the pace of the game. We want to play fast and push the ball. We’ll look for every opportunity we can in transition. Then, if we don’t do something, we’ll pull out and execute what we do – we’re best, our best offense is transition offense. That’s, if you looked at our team this year, we led the conference in transition baskets, most shots attempted, most points scored … so nothing changes. These guys are in great condition. Larry’s the old man, he’s 23. He can go forever.
A few thoughts from Minnesota:
Williams on the key to the game: “Shabazz Muhammad. That’s the key to their team. If we stop him and make all the other guys be the scorers, I think we’ll come out with the W. They’re also a good transition team and they can shoot the ball well, but the big key is going to be Muhammad.”
Austin Hollins on getting away from the grind-it-out, half-court setting that is seen so much in Big Ten play: “It is a little bit refreshing. They’re no Wisconsin or anything. So we’ll be ready when we come out on the court, we’ll be ready to run up and down.”
Some other quick notes:
- Tonight marks the Gophers’ 12th overall NCAA tournament appearance. They last played in an NCAA game in 2010. The Gophers haven’t won an NCAA game since 1997, when Minnesota made it to the Final Four. That run, however, has since been vacated due to the academic scandal. The Gophers’ last official NCAA win came in 1990.
- The Gophers’ last NCAA win, in 1997, coincidentally was over UCLA in the Elite Eight; the win that advanced Minnesota to the Final Four.
- Mbakwe and Williams are the only Gophers with any experience in an NCAA tournament game. But the pair have combined for less than two minutes of game action. Mbakwe played a minute in 2008 while at Marquette his freshman season, and Williams had an even more abbreviated appearance in the 2010 first-round loss to Xavier his freshman year.
- Smith is making his 17th appearance overall.
*Watch tonight’s game on TruTV.
* Listen to tonight’s game live on My Talk 107.1 a.m.
* In today’s Star Tribune: Williams looking to rise to the occasion, at last.
* Also in today’s Star Tribune: What’s this? A little good, old-fashioned smack talk?
* All about the matchup: the call.
* Notes from yesterday’s media access.
* This week’s aMAILia BAG.
* Want to feel better about your bracket? Check out mine. Feel free to give me [heck]. My boss just informed me I am DEAD LAST in the company pool of 87. This is who you’re getting college basketball advice from, folks. Hopefully I can’t get canned for being impossibly bad at filling out a bracket. I’m not even mad. That’s amazing. Not sure if I could have done this bad if I tried.
*Who likes the Gophers? Well, just about everyone. (At least Harvard and Vegas).